A few years ago, when I was on holiday in Belgium, I spent hours in churches. (The friend I travelled with, who hadn’t voluntarily been in a church in decades, and who knew I am an atheist, was worried I would catch Christianity.) What I wanted to see was the paintings. The invention of oil paint meant Lowlands painters could create pictures so finely detailed it is possible to see the weave in the carpet and the stitches in the embroidered clothing: pictures from five or six hundred years ago that glow from the canvas.
And over and over again, pictures of Mary. Mary as a baby, with Anna her mother: Anna and Joachim, Mary’s father, together: Mary saying “Fiat” to the angel: Mary as a young woman, as a mother with a preposterously large infant on her knee, Mary being carried into heaven by a troop of angels on her death. Mary is supposed to have been conceived on 8th December, and on that date in 2009, The US Senate rejected by a narrow margin an amendment proposed by Senators Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that was intended to modify “Obamacare” so that any private insurance company that got federal funding for Obamacare insurance, couldn’t offer health insurance plans that included abortion.
Since 1977, it’s been unlawful in the US for federal funds to be used to fund abortion directly: prolife/anti-human rights/anti-healthcare politicians consistently try to further limit access to abortion by tax-funded healthcare, making safe abortions more difficult/expensive to obtain and promoting profiteers like Kermit Gosnell.
This year, I think, we have had it pressed upon us how urgent the need for funding for abortion is. There are many people to blame in the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the butcher who was providing illegal abortions in Philadelphia, preying on women who, for various reasons, didn’t have access to safe, responsible providers. Some of this is due to the stigma of abortion. Women don’t talk about it, and so don’t share information about who is a safe provider. Women don’t complain about bad service, because they don’t want to admit they’ve had abortions. But a whole lot of it is money. Abortion providers really do try to keep costs low, but even places like Planned Parenthood often have to charge $400-$600 for an early term abortion, because they don’t get any federal reimbursements. Thus, if a woman can’t come up with the money right away, she often gets on the hamster wheel from hell. She starts trying to raise the money—asking friends and family, selling things, etc. But this is all very time-consuming, and the problem with pregnancy is it’s progressive. The longer you wait to abort, the more expensive it is. Gosnell exploited many women that were seeking later abortions, which he offered at cut-rate prices because he wasn’t running a real doctor’s office. He was perfectly poised to exploit women whose lack of funds put safe abortions out of their reach.
Sister Donna Quinn, a nun of the Dominican Order in Illinois, wrote an open letter thanking those who lobbied their senators to vote against the Nelson-Hatch Amendment, which had been openly lobbied for by Catholic Bishops. Quinn had been rebuked by the Dominican Order for acting as a clinic escort to get women who needed abortions safely into the ACU Health Clinic in Hinsdale, Illinois: a prolife group had taken to picketing outside to harass patients going in. (Read Every Saturday Morning – a blog describing the work clinic escorts do to protect vulnerable patients against prolife bullying, described by prolifers as “sidewalk counselling”.)
“The Amendment lost today but now the work will be to take this Bill and come out with the same good news when the Senate and House work together,” Quinn said.
Citing a poem about the Virgin Mary, Quinn noted the providential date of the amendment’s defeat.
“I was reminded of being with men and women from the Unitarian faith tradition last year as they celebrated Mary who by her assent, they believed, was one of the first women in the New Testament to express Choice,” Quinn said.
She also referenced the Vatican’s crackdown on dissenting voices, citing an article in the magazine “Conscience” published by the organization Catholics for Choice.
Quoting writer Jeannine Gramick, Quinn wrote: “Faithful and respectful dissent is vital to the life of the church. It enables the church community to think, to deliberate, to debate and to grow in relationship to one another and in relationship to God. We cannot afford to let our dissenters be silenced. They are a gift to our church.”
What actually prevents abortions is of course not anti-human rights protesters screaming abuse at vulnerable women on their way to have abortions, nor legislation making safe abortions more difficult and more expensive to obtain, but free provision of contraception, easy access to contraception, and strong encouragement to use it.
Two good things that happened this December: a tiny step forward for Ireland, when the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, announced that the Fine Gael-Labour coalition would proceed with a mixture of “legislation with regulation” to implement the legal right for a woman to have an abortion in Ireland when continuing with the pregnancy would kill her. This move has met with open opposition from “prolifers”, especially since the legislation will cover abortion where the girl or woman is considered a major suicide risk if she’s forced to continue with the pregnancy.
Breda O’Brien, a prolifer, wrote in the Irish Times on 22nd December objecting to the idea that a girl or a woman who has been made pregnant by rape and is suicidal at the thought of having to have the rapist’s baby:
What about someone who is suicidal after a rape? Is that sufficient grounds for abortion on the grounds of suicide?
The judges in the X case thought so. Rape is violence, an abuse of both sexuality and power. When a woman or a girl conceives through rape, it is so far from what she would wish for herself, it multiplies the impact of the original horrific act of violence.
However, if a baby is conceived through rape, she will be in the equally devastating situation that she will be stigmatised forever, not because of anything she has done, but because of the actions of her father. Even people who are normally anti-abortion will turn their faces against her, on the grounds that her father’s actions negate her right even to live.
O’Brien also cited “A young woman called Amanda [who] blogs as the ‘Declassified Adoptee'” as an anti-choice example of why a suicidal rape victim ought not to have the legal option of abortion in Ireland (because obviously, it will be so much better for her to have to catch a plane to England).
Amanda saw the O’Brien article and responded:
What the “personhood movement” seems to have forgotten is that at no point before, during, or after pregnancy does a woman cease to be a person. There is no gestational age of a woman’s pregnancy that erases her personhood or her accompanying entitlement to human rights. A woman’s human rights include autonomy over her own body at all times.
Although she wants to be seen as a feminist ally to women and to individuals conceived from rape, Ms. O’Brien repeats common stereotypical assumptions about conception from rape. She believes that my conception circumstance alone immediately indicates that I was destined for abortion. She also believes that I was not aborted “because [my] mother chose to see [me] not as the enemy, but as a fellow victim of the abuser who raped her.” Ms. O’Brien is hardly privy to my mother’s decision-making process while pregnant, and she does not know if my mother ever considered abortion in the first place. To put it bluntly, those things are none of my business any more than they are Ms. O’Brien’s.
There are plenty of Pro-Life individuals who were conceived from rape that this columnist could have chosen to quote. In fact, several are much more publicly involved in sharing their conception circumstances and much more active in abortion policy than am I. Ms. O’Brien appears to have appropriated my story because she believes she can do a better job at assigning meaning to the tragedy in my life narrative than I have. In the same paternalistic move that tells women they aren’t capable of responsible control over their own bodies, she negated my right to self-direct my own narrative. Furthermore, she mistakenly feels she speaks for my mother. None of these things reflect feminist values.
What Ms. O’Brien doesn’t know is that my conception circumstance has little to do with my political stance on abortion rights. The fact of the matter is, if being pregnant ever threatened my life or well-being I would want the choice not to leave my children, who are people, without their mother. While people seem to believe that it is possible to legislate something like this and still respect human rights, it truly isn’t. What well-being during pregnancy looks like differs from woman to woman and should be discussed exclusively between a woman and her health care provider in privacy. What Ireland ought to legislate is respect for women with the understanding that only a given woman knows what is right for her own body, and she deserves privacy to make that choice.
The Catholic hierarchy in the US has been opposing the healthcare reform bill that became law earlier this year, Obamacare, because part of its provisions included every woman’s right to get contraception as part of her health insurance, without any co-pay. While there may still be difficulty for women in rural areas who have limited access to healthcare, this should generally ensure a drop in the abortion rate in the US: it has been shown that easy access to free birth control of the woman’s choice dramatically cuts the number of unwanted/unplanned pregnancies and thus the number of abortions. Where girls can get access to contraception without parental consent, teenage pregnancy rates drop and thus so do teenage abortion rates. Where contraception is available over the counter from any pharmacist, girls and women are more likely to be able to access contraception. (The problem of pharmacists who claim a conscientious objection to providing women with contraception exists all over.)
In July this year, Amber Rudd, Tory MP for Hastings, launched a cross-party inquiry into unwanted pregnancy, supported by the 2020health think tank. Cristina Odone, an enthusiastic crusader against choice for women (for other women: I assume if she needed an abortion she would have one) described the inquiry’s request for evidence from Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) as “Amber throwing down a gauntlet to Nadine”:
Only last year, BPAS was dropped from the government’s Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV. For the Left this was a terrible act of iconoclasm – and raised suspicions that a Dorries-led Tory movement was afoot to tamper with the sacred pillar: the 24-week limit.
(Cristina Odone shares the view of three out of the UK’s four Health Ministers, PM David Cameron and FM Alex Salmond, that if a woman in the UK needs an abortion after 20 weeks, she ought to have to go overseas to get it.)
The report (PDF) was published on 19th December. While news reports have tended to focus on the idea of compulsory “sex and relationships” education in school – which, if modelled after the successful Netherlands education system, will tell both girls and boys that it’s their right to decide when to say “yes” or “no” to sex. (Sex education that merely teaches children “no sex til marriage”, common in the US, is definitively shown to ensure that when teenagers do have sex, they’re much less likely to use contraception and therefore much more likely to get pregnant or to acquire/transmit STDs.)
Fred Clark at Slacktivist points out that if anti-choice Christians were really against abortion, they’d be campaigning for the Obamacare health reform, especially the provision for access to contraception included in all health insurance plans without copay. Routinely, repeatedly, prolife campaigners and politicians claim their goal is to prevent abortions. Clark asks:
But what if that goal was only a pretense? What if opposition to legal abortion wasn’t really based on a desire to reduce the number of abortions, but were based mainly, instead, on a desire to control and punish women?
Well, if the latter were true, then those claiming to want fewer abortions would be among the loudest opposing the Affordable Care Act and fighting for the candidate who has pledged to repeal it.
This is not hypothetical. This is the evidence we have. This is proof — political action that contradicts the sanctimony and pious words. This is the proof that exposes the disingenuous lie that has shaped American politics for more than 30 years.
Amber Rudd told BBC Newsnight:
that her party’s debates about the current abortion age limit do not help the debate over how an individual should deal with unplanned pregnancies: “I do feel that the rising rates of abortion rates in this country are a cause for concern, and some of my colleagues in the Houses of Parliament think that the way to deal with that is sometimes to make access to abortion more difficult.
“My view is that the way to deal with that is to make access to contraception more effective… So that you don’t have to go down that road.”
She says having this conversation and discussing why women get pregnant can help provide better access to contraception and ultimately reduce the number of abortions, by making sure “young women don’t get pregnant who don’t want to”.
“I think it is unproductive to constantly have a debate in the House of Commons about abortion.
“The right debate to be having is about to stop young women getting pregnant.
“To help them make the right choices for themselves… which is about self-respect and ambition to make sure that there is sufficient access to contraception so they can make those choices – in the way that is best for them.”
If you believe in God’s omniscience and human free will, and if you believe in the Virgin Birth, then God chose Mary because God knew Mary would say yes. But the story according to Luke is that God did ask Mary: Mary was given the option of saying no, and she said yes: it’s a prochoice story.
If you listen to the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, in the US – almost anywhere really – Catholicism is a religion that is devoutly anti-women and anti-LGBT: the Catholic God is a gay-hating women-hating deity, who wants women to be left to suffer through a miscarriage until the foetus no longer has a heartbeat, who prefers hysterectomy to abortion because permanently sterilising a woman is more Godly than allowing her to have an abortion and the choice of babies in the future: a God who is actively, malignantly against the idea that women have the right to decide if and how many babies to have and when.
If you listen to grassroots Catholics – and nuns, denied access to the all-male hierarchy structures, tend to be outspokenly grassroots Catholics – you get a different picture of Catholic belief. The politicians who think they’ll get “the Catholic vote” by listening to the church hierarchy, need to remember that each bishop or archbishop, though they have a literal bully pulpit, still only has one vote.
Sister Donna Quinn said, when rebuked for protecting women against prolife activists, that she would cease her work because the publicity about her presence might bring further harm to vulnerable women and the clinic. She added:
“I take this opportunity to urge those demonstrating against women who are patients at the Hinsdale Clinic, whom I have seen emotionally as well as physically threaten women, to cease those activities. I would never have had to serve as a peacekeeper had not they created a war against women.”